Record snowpack has Utah skiers pursuing an ‘Endless Winter’

Skiers, riders earn their turns in summer by hiking for miles for a few minutes on the snow.

One thing Ethan Madsen and his three friends hadn’t planned for during their most recent ski trip to Alta Ski Area: mosquitos.

“The second we finished, the second we got to the bottom” they swarmed, Madsen, 22, said. “I probably have like 20 mosquito bites.”

That’s one of the drawbacks of skiing in July, as he, his brother Tanner Madsen and their friends Alex Jenks and Adam Meadows found out a couple of weeks ago. The group of BYU students as a whole have little experience with summer ski touring. Yet on a whim on a Saturday afternoon, they piled their boots and skis in a car and drove up to Alta to give new meaning to the term “earn your turns.”

Unlike Mammoth Mountain in California and Timberline Lodge on Oregon’s Mount Hood — resorts that have been operating since at least last November (at least until Mammoth closed Sunday) — Utah’s lift-accessed skiing ended with the closure of Snowbird in late June. Yet those Utahns most dedicated to their sport — or just pining for adventure — have continued to ski and ride well into the summer thanks to the remnants of last winter’s extraordinary snowfall.

(Julie Jag | The Salt Lake Tribune) Four friends from BYU, from left Ethan Madsen, Tanner Madsen, Adam Meadows and Alex Jenks, hiked about seven miles round trip to ski a 900-foot long patch of snow at Alta Ski Area on Saturday, July 29, 2023. The remnants of last winter's record snowfall has coaxed many Utah skiers into extending their seasons into summer.

During the 2022-23 ski season, Alta reported more snowfall than any other resort in North America with a record 903 inches. Five other Utah resorts, including Snowbasin and Park City Mountain, also broke their own snow records.

“I think people were just psyched,” about the bounty of snow, said Tom Diegel, the vice president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance. “And it was a great and unusual opportunity to try to extend the season.”

Diegel said he has friends who are dedicated to skiing every month of the year, even in low snow years. That often, but not always, necessitates traveling out of state. He hasn’t made that commitment himself but said he enjoys the challenge of extending his local season as late as possible.

He went up the last week in July to ski the remaining snow on Mount Baldy, also at Alta. Generally, he said, that snow is gone by late June. This year, he expects it to last into mid-August.

Diegel hiked 5 miles for 900 feet of skiing — or about five minutes’ worth. When he got home he told his wife: “That was dumb but really fun, and that’s all I care about.”

(Colter Leys) Martin Zanazzi, one of a group of teenagers who hiked up Mount Timpanogos to ski Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023, navigates the sun cups on the area's summer snow field.

Anecdotally, Diegel has noticed more people skiing deep into the summer months this year, likely because there’s still so much snow to be found. Colter Leys, who skied Mount Timpanogos with his kids and a few of their friends last weekend, agreed that he’s seen skis racked on car roofs more often this summer than in others. He even saw some snowboarders hiking to Mount Timp, which he said is something of a rarity.

“I think there is something, too, about once you’re in July, you’re like, ‘Well, you know, it’s just a few months before the next (ski season) comes. Maybe I should just try and bridge the gap,’” Leys said. “Kind of ‘The Endless Summer’ in reverse.”

Madsen and his friends certainly weren’t summer skiing aficionados, even though they squeeze every Alta day they can out of their Ikon Passes. They got the idea to go up to Alta when Madsen picked up a pair of skis while helping a friend move that morning and said aloud: “This feels right.”

A half-hour later, they were on their way, making only a brief pause to change into festive Hawaiian shirts.

(Adam Meadows) Four friends from BYU, Alex Jenks, Adam Meadows, Ethan Madsen and Tanner Madsen, hiked about seven miles round trip to ski a patch of snow at Alta Ski Area on Saturday, July 29, 2023. New and experienced summer skiers and boarders have been taking advantage of remaining snow from last winter's record snowfall.

At the advice of Meadows’ older brother, an experienced summer tourer who happened to know Mount Baldy was closed that weekend while Alta installed new avalanche towers, they zeroed in on a sliver of snow that remained on Gunsite. Though it can be found on the ski area map, the expert run is remote, tucked under a ridge near the Greeley Bowl.

With their boots locked into their skis and their skis strapped to their backpacks, they set off on what would ultimately be a seven-mile round-trip expedition. (That included a two-mile side scramble to the top of the ridge that they all agreed was much more perilous than the skiing.)

When they found the snow, it was in good shape, at least for skiing in July. It wasn’t too icy nor too wet. It was wide enough to turn on and, best off all, there wasn’t a single other track in sight.

“It’s not something that you would do if you only care about the best-quality skiing,” Jenks, 23, said. “As far as quality of skiing goes, it was not at the top of my leaderboard. But I think just the all-around experience is just super unique and fun.”

One by one, they snapped into their skis and tentatively began the descent, staying alert for rocks and icy patches. They estimated the snow field to be about 500 feet long, which on a winter day they could have covered in about a minute. But this wasn’t a winter day.

“We could have done it in one long run without stopping,” Jenks said. “But we really wanted to savor it.”

“Like a chocolate,” Madsen chimed in.

(Colter Leys) Mountain goats check out the gear set down by members of a group of teenagers who hiked up Mount Timpanogos to ski Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023.

Once at the bottom, they switched back into their hiking shoes and began the trek back. Yet even with a swarm of mosquitos chasing them, that, too, took longer than expected.

“We kind of felt like celebrities walking up and down,” Jenks said. “Not a single person walked by without asking us a question or making a comment.”

Because even if summer skiing is on the rise this year, it’s still a novelty to most.